David Brooks: What Our Words Tell Us


Friday, August 09, 2013

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote that our word choice proves that we’ve become a more individualistic society. Brooks cited Ngram studies which showed that in the last 50 years, words like “self” and “unique” have been on the rise while “community" and "share” have declined.

For a big-picture look at the development of a society, he tells Kurt Andersen, “you’re looking for data. And the Ngram can provide a picture of cultural shifts.”

Big Data has gotten a frosty reception from some academics in the humanities, who favor analysis based on close reading and other traditional methods. “Believe me understanding the synapses will never help us explain the creation of Macbeth or Othello,” Brooks says. However, it’s short-sighted to be suspicious of these new tools. “The humanities are in decline because people have lost sight of the core mission. Humanists have spent too much time talking about social repair and not enough time talking about internal improvement.”

Comments [6]


David Brooks wants to plasticized humanity meaning that he turns the 1% of all the white people who are the gods in united states and the 70% of all the imprisoned American in united states which are the color folk, and blend it over so you don't talk about race or class or religion. ya right lets all talk about the manikin humanity in America where there are no difference between how we treat black gay verse white gays or how rich white people don't think there is a class war in this country right this minute because billionare Mitt Romney shop at cosco.

Aug. 19 2013 04:51 PM
Ben Ewen-Campen from Somerville, MA

Dear Studio 360,

I imagine that you don't realize how alienating it is, for much of your audience, to hear two wealthy white men complain that, "the humanities are in decline because...they've spent too much time talking about race, class and gender." To me, this is exactly the type of statement that makes it so essential for the Humanities to continue talking about how white, male culture attempts to discredit and silence those viewpoints which challenge its supremacy.

It is, of course, not surprising to me that David Brooks would make such a statement. But I expected more from Studio 360's Kurt Anderson than his uncritical airing of this ignorant viewpoint and his response: "Well said."

(Lastly, I just want to say that I wish I could have reporter Ike Sriskandarajah's syrupy, velveteen voice piped into my ears 24 hours a day).

Aug. 14 2013 04:11 PM
Jessie Henshaw from Way Uptown

My work takes me to being interested in links between long term developmental trends in word use, particularly when exposing systemic changes how our culture or economy are working. The Google Ngram tool has been a big help. It's the dramatically long continuous progressive developmental trends that are the most clear systemic process indicators, and so seem most effective for exposing "amazing stuff no one had any real idea was going on"... I've been using it for studying systemic culture changes closely linked to to our experiencing the effects of using our culture to drive a global growth economy for a few hundred years...

Sometimes you also find word use frequencies similarly effective for exposing more local and faster changing cultural phenomena, by trending stories containing key words or phrases, counting the number of stories mentioning them in "journals of record" like the NY Times. That has helped me a lot with understanding the true story behind the "collapse of the great NYC crime wave" starting in ~1990, the "rise of sustainability" as a cultural icon, and the evolution of the science of "general systems theory",... and where it went.

My general links are:

Some research project links

Aug. 11 2013 03:07 PM
duc du ryer from New York City

It may be because of the lull of a summer in which Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia, the force feeding of hungerstriking detainees in Guantamo is continuing, and the concrete impact of the sequester on poor Americans (just sampling domestic politics) has disappeared from the political News feeds that David Brooks and Kurt Andersen could happily agree that focusing on internal improvement and internal redemption is okay for the Humanities (which David Brooks considers a sister discipline to --Christian? Jewish?-- Theology, but what about Religious Studies?), even though David Brooks had just declared that the Humanities are in decline because they have lost their core mission, paying too much attention to race, class, and gender and social repair.
Personal redemption yes, social repair no.
Quod erat demonstrandum: the private is (still) political.

This chit-chat delivered in an ironic twist an indictment of David Brooks and Kurt Andersen:

Facts AKA raw data are nothing new for scholars in the Humanities and the Natural Sciences (e.g., history of knowledge and history of science; the Annals school, economic history, cliometrics, computational linguistics). Thanks to the rise of computer science, software for tiny processing chips is providing more data points than statisticians in the 19th century, but to argue that only for the last 20 years scholars in the Humanities are confronted with data as opposed to close reading and close looking raises the questions whether the gentlemen ever stopped to consider the question how any field in the Humanities obtains its primary sources which are the subject of its research and teaching.

Aug. 11 2013 12:57 PM
Pac Weather from Northwest

To David Brooks Republican talking points that the humanities has lost itself by its distraction of Race, Class, Gender while More and more where exponentially address to others is made from by an author from the solitude of the text message box,

To David Brooks Republican talking points that the humanities has lost itself by its distraction for issues of Race, Class, Gender while eschewing matters of individual responsibility & redemption Kurt Anderson replies "Well Said"!

Besides this revelation of Kurt's right leaning political sympathies in the matter there is utterly no basis for his congratulatory nod to Brooks. Brooks is here playing pseudo-scientist much as his pseudo-intellectual status permits him by citing big data analysis on word use over decades that imply a shift from We to I, in support his view on the social narcissism of recent literature. To make the leap from Big Data on popular word choice to supporting his Republican talking points is a mile wide stretch for which he provides no supporting evidence. The big data just tells you how much not why, one could also venture that the choice of pronouns has to do with the shift in recent decades to new communications media we inscribe our thought upon. For example, besides he fact that more and more forms of address are issued from the solitude of the text message box, the exponential proliferation of blogs in the past decade highlights a media where one naturally assumes a first person voice. David Brooks again has demonstrated he is good at co-opting and data that may support his ideological perspective - as he did recently to try to support his position that Edward Snowden leak was a bad thing - the surprising thing here is that Kurt Anderson swallowed Brooks assertion, line and sinker.

Aug. 10 2013 11:29 PM
John A

I can remember an OpEd essay in your paper, David, about how selflessness (self-sacrifice) holds us backward [author: AQ]. It was about 20 years ago. I knew something had changed that day when I read the article. No, no one person causes this, we all do in some part. But I hope and pray you and others can stop a further slide away from civility.

Aug. 10 2013 05:50 PM

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